On Friday, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at Elmhurst Park officially opened to the public. Despite chilling weather, dozens of elected officials, veterans and residents attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony to mark the occasion.
The celebratory event culminated a decade-long push for the $2.85 million monument, which features a curved bench flanked by two semi-closed granite walls.
One wall bears the names of 371 men from Queens who fought and died in the Vietnam War. The second features a timeline of the war and a map of key locations, which officials hope will be used as an educational tool.
The memorial and the flagpole will be illuminated at night, which Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver said will create a “serene space” for reflection.
“The legacy of these men will forever be commemorated right here in Elmhurst Park for many years to come,” he said.
An additional plaque inscribed on the wall honors the lives of veterans who died from illnesses related to their service in Vietnam. It includes the name of Pat Toro, a former president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 32 who began the push for a memorial in 2008.
Toro passed away in 2014 from complications related to exposure to Agent Orange.
Michael O’Kane, another former president of VVA Chapter 32, said the memorial had become Toro’s “obsession” and his life’s work.
“Pat’s vision was to have one central, unifying memorial for all of Queens,” he said. “It was literally his dying wish that this get done.”
“This is bittersweet,” added Evelyn Toro, Pat’s wife and an advocate for the project. “I know he’s looking down and smiling.”
After Toro’s death, the task fell on O’Kane and Chapter 32 to raise funds and design the project.
Borough President Melinda Katz, who actually allocated $150,000 for the memorial 10 years ago as a member of the City Council, fully funded the entire project. A decade later, she saw it through to completion.
Her last ribbon-cutting ceremony as the borough president was for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Katz noted that the Parks Department placed the names on the wall specifically in the spot that gets the most sunlight in the entire park.
“If there is a sun gleaming in the sky, the names on the wall will shine brightly,” she said. “I think that was a very important personal touch.”
John Rowan, national president of the Vietnam Veterans of America, recalled that when the Vietnam veteran’s memorial was built in Washington, D.C., his organization got to see the list of every person whose name was inscribed on it.
One of his chapter members and another friend, whom he described as a “computer geek,” went name by name and figured out who on that list was from Queens. That’s how they created the list of 371 names for the Queens memorial.
Rowan said the people on the new memorial were a reflection of the diversity of today’s borough, with nearly every ethnic group and religious represented.
“Many of them were not citizens,” he said. “They died serving a country they weren’t even citizens of.”
Rowan added that he’s particularly proud that the memorial is located in Elmhurst, where he grew up. It’s also the neighborhood where VVA Chapter 32 started, back when the group met in the former Community Board 4 office on Broadway.
The VVA president noted that the number of Vietnam veterans alive is “rapidly shrinking,” which underscores the importance of remembering them.
“Please come by and visit this memorial,” Rowan said.
O’Kane added that there are “no words” that can convey what this memorial means to Vietnam vets. He said having the 371 names inscribed in the memorial was an important design element.
“We wanted people to be able to reach out and touch their loved one’s names,” he said. “It’s a visceral connection.
“We truly hope that the people of Queens can come to find some peace here,” O’Kane added. “This is a dream come true to us.”